Stop the gang rape of Sigiriya

The Island (Colombo) editorial of 7 October 2003

Irrefutable proof of the commencement of cultural vandalism of Sigiriya now on was provided in the last ‘Saturday Magazine’ of The Island by a reader, Stephen Bamunusinghe. In a commentary illustrated with photographs, he showed that irreversible structural changes were being made for the proposed conversion of this famed architectural monument —included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites – into another gaudy ‘Disneyland’ project. The objective is to create a tourist attraction drawing an audience of 400 per night which is expected to rake in the much wanted dollars.

Mr. Bamunusinhe in his article titled, Gang Raping Sigiriya says: ‘Recently the Central Cultural Fund, in its wisdom has rectified (an omission) on the part of the ancient architects. On the South (i.e. right hand side) of the entrance passage, the original steep slope of the boundary wall flanking it had been levelled down by a gang of labourers to create a gradually rising ramp as easy access to the summit. Obviously the purpose is to provide a convenient pathway to tourists — even senior people can be comfortably pushed up in wheel – chairs. The whole surface of the boundary wall from the western to the Southern side, originally built of earth and lined with stones and paved with brick have been paved with a buff coloured carpet of plaster 20 to 3 inches thick which appears to be a lime and gravel mixture. The gang rape of Sigiriya has not only resulted in the destruction of a part of an ancient monument but – what is more – has changed the archaeology of the site from the architectural and materiel point of view... It will no doubt misguide future archeologists, to conclude a 100 years later that our ancestors paved pathways with lime and gravel’.

On July 4, The Island published a proposal made by two foreign ‘experts’ Svein Sturla Hungnes and Stein-Roger Bull, who had apparently been commissioned by the Central Cultural Fund to draw up this concept of a Disneyland which they have modestly called a ‘Sunset Walk in Sigiriya Water Gardens’. It involves the use of electric trains to take the hundreds of visitors for a ride round the moat surrounding the rock, ‘beautiful illuminated trees’, soldiers in ancient regalia, ‘changing music’ to work up the visitors with increasing tempo of the Sun Set Walk , choreographed nymphs dancing, using water flowers to ‘decorate themselves’ and 'end up in position like we recognise them from the paintings' among many other jazzed up attractions.

Is this the ancient culture of our people that we want to project to the outside world? Do we want to make Sigiriya and its environs into an outdoor discotheque? The ghosts of mighty Kassapa, his warriors and certainly those of meditating monks, if they are around, would undoubtedly dive instantly into the surrounding moat to save themselves from this comedy.

Strangely, historians and other academics of related disciplines have maintained a deafening silence although this project to sell King Kassapa and the ancient Mahayana Monastery for dollars is now an open secret. An academic, Professor Sudarshan Seneviratne, head of the Department of Archaeology sounded a warning about the dangerous trend Sri Lanka archaeology is taking in an interview with the Indian magazine Frontline. He said: ‘We are concerned that archaeology has turned out to be a money spinner.. there are some archaeologists who are trying to push an agenda for a large private role in the management of museums and world heritage sites. The priorities of our hoteliers and tour operators are totally different and I am not too happy about the integrity of the private sector in Sri Lanka. Archaeologists must be in control of the heritage sites for many good reasons. I have nothing against private sector in involvement in certain areas which we have but strictly under our control.’

That, however, does not appear to be the thinking of ruling party politicians. Informed sources say that top officials of archaeology who had made their reservations about the Sigiriya Song and Dance project have been told by a powerful politician - reputed for strong arm action in trade unionism rather than for cultural affairs – to ‘ simply lay off’. ‘This is not your business but ours,’ has been his cultured reply.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe , however, we suppose are very much interested in protection of the culture and heritage of the country. They should well realise that the uniqueness of this magnificent monument lies in that it still is in its pristine state unspoilt by any form of tinkering amidst the unmatched verdant surroundings. The ruins themselves exude the unique artistic creativity of those builders who used this outcrop of rock to build a regal monument, completely in consonance with its environs. Once the electric trains, gaudy electric illuminations, cacophony of modern jazz – east or west – and dancing nymphs in various states of dress and undress are brought in with an audience of 400 each day, Sigiriya will end up as a part soccer stadium, part carnival and part discotheque.

Of course many, such as those from the hamburger - kotthu rotti generation may prefer the changes. Let them be confined to other areas such as ‘Colombo By Night’. Sigiriya has been there for generations – from the 5th Century and should be there perpetually. It is the duty of President Kumaratunga and more particularly Prime Minister Wickremasinghe to protect it from architectural specialists of cultural vandalism.

The Island (Colombo) editorial of 7 October 2003.

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